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Kenyan police break up rallies, kill 2 protesters

Police firing tear gas and live bullets halted protests in cities across Kenya, preventing mass rallies aimed at forcing the president admit his election victory was rigged.
Opposition party supporters react to the camera as they protest in Kisumu, western Kenya, on Wednesday.
Opposition party supporters react to the camera as they protest in Kisumu, western Kenya, on Wednesday. Darko Bandic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police firing tear gas and live bullets halted protests in cities across Kenya, preventing the mass rallies that the opposition hoped would show the power behind their demands the president step down and admit his election victory was rigged. At least two people were shot to death by police and six were wounded.

"We will go the extra mile for democracy. We are ready for bloodshed," said Philomen Bett, 30, a teacher in the western city of Eldoret.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga had called for three days of protests nationwide, starting Wednesday, after a week of violence that killed more than 600 people and international mediation failed to move President Mwai Kibaki, who insists he won the Dec. 27 election. Observers say the vote tally was rigged.

National police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said he had no word on casualties Wednesday, but a mortuary attendant in Kisumu, Kenya's third largest city, said there were two bodies with bullet wounds and nurses there said they were treating three wounded. In Nairobi, at least three men were taken to a hospital after they were shot in Kibera, one of two slums in the city where police fired tear gas and bullets to disperse hundreds of protesters.

Odinga said two people were killed in Kisumu and one in another western town, Migori.

Rioting mars Kenya's image
Riots and ethnic killings in the wake of the disputed vote have marred Kenya's image as a stable democratic oasis in a war-ravaged region and damaged its tourist-dependent economy. It has also aggravated long-simmering ethnic tensions and conflicts over land.

Police had declared Wednesday's protests illegal. In Nairobi, helmeted riot police on horseback chased small clusters of protesters from skyscraper-lined streets downtown. Businesses shut as tear gas was fired, and thousands of panicked office workers in suits and high heels streamed out of downtown on foot.

Some people, annoyed at the disturbance, shouted "Raila go home!"

His supporters chanted "No Raila. No peace."

Odinga vowed he would lead the march on Nairobi's downtown Uhuru Park, which was ringed by riot police. Though Odinga drove through town, neither he nor any other opposition member made it to the park.

Protesters' fervor was dampened by rain across much of the country, and by the response of police.

Call for peaceful protest
Odinga had called for peaceful demonstrations, and there were few of the serious clashes that characterized protests immediately after election results were announced. Most protesters were unarmed, but mobs in one Nairobi slum and the western town of Kisumu hurled rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and live bullets.

Protests touched the coastal tourist city of Mombasa, where police hurled tear gas and used batons to beat back several groups of protesters hundreds strong.

In Kisumu and Eldoret, thousands of rowdy young men massed, first marching peacefully. As the crowds grew, police lobbed tear gas canisters, forcing them disperse. They regrouped, and police then fired live rounds, immediately clearing out downtown streets.

"The police are overreacting. People are just demanding their rights," said one of the wounded in Kisumu, 26-year-old Dominic Okoth, where burning tires blocked roads and sent columns of acrid smoke into the air.

When police opened fire in Eldoret, a crowd of about 4,000 fled. Workers at a nearby gas station crouched under cars, their heads in their hands. Women fled with one shoe on.

Earlier in Kisumu, protesters carried a coffin with Kibaki's name on it.

On one makeshift roadblock on the outskirts of Eldoret, a dead dog was draped over a pile of rocks with a sign saying "Kibaki Death."

In the northwest, opposition supporters piled logs and rocks to block the main route into southern Sudan, used by aid agencies. Police later cleared the road.

Official admits ordering police to fire
Meanwhile, the provincial police chief in Kisumu said she had ordered her officers to fire on a rioting crowd there on Dec. 29,saying she was forced to because her force was overwhelmed.

The comments by Grace Kaindi to The Associated Press were the first to acknowledge police fired on crowds. Previously, police had denied shooting anyone in the turmoil.

"It was an extreme situation and there was no other way to control them," Kaindi said. "I gave the order to open fire myself when I heard that my officers were being overwhelmed. If we had not killed them, things would have got very bad."

The toll, according to hospital records: 44 shot dead, 143 wounded. Kaindi said one police officer was hurt by a rock hurled from the crowd.

Human rights workers say Kisumu, 200 miles northwest of Nairobi, suffered the worst police brutality because it is an Odinga stronghold.

U.S., Britain threaten aid cut
Thirteen nations, including the United States and Britain, increased pressure on rival politicians to find a solution, threatening Wednesday to cut aid to the government "if the commitment of the government of Kenya to good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights weakens."

Foreign and local election observers have said the vote count in the election was deeply flawed. Although the electoral chief pronounced Kibaki the victor, he later said he had been pressured to do so and did not know who won.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger, speaking by telephone hookup Wednesday from Kenya to a conference at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think tank, said a power-sharing arrangement was "the only thing to do," but that it would not be easy to persuade Kibaki and Odinga to agree to such a compromise.

But "both have looked us in the eye and said they are willing to have a dialogue," Ranneberger said, adding Kibaki's one condition is that he will not step down.

The ambassador ruled out holding a new election. "Neither side has the money for it," he said.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said "the post-electoral crisis in Kenya" continued Wednesday.

"The U.N. country team reports that the western towns of Kisumu and Eldoret as well as the capital Nairobi and towns along the Kenyan coast, including Mombasa, are all now theaters of clashes between security forces and youth gangs," Montas said.